Image Credit: Bent Architect
(Accessed from http://www.thelbt.co.uk)
(Accessed from http://www.thelbt.co.uk)
England, Arise! is set in World War I and adapted from Cyril Pearce's Comrades in Conscience, how did the story inspire you to want to write it as a play?
Arthur Gardiner himself to begin with, but then the more I read the more interesting the people around him and the times he lived in it became. Also because it is a story that is largely unknown. It occurred to me that these guys weren’t just operating in isolation, ideas and revolutionary currents in women’s politics and the arts were fascinating too. It’s essentially a character driven drama, it’s about the people, Arthur, Percy, Sis and Lavena Saltonstall, real historical characters who did incredible things, lived through times that massively shaped the world we live in now. History is not just about Kings and Queens but also all the lesser known figures like the ones in our play who actually did things to change the world around them and risked everything to do that. That’s what this play is about. Jude Wright, Director of this production, and I have known about Cyril Pearce's book for many years so as the centenary approached the idea came into our minds that this was the time to look at it again and see if we could find a way to dramatise it. We spoke with Cyril about it and he was interested in the idea too. I think a stage play can bring a story to life, make the key players into real flesh and blood human beings and so that much more accessible to people than the history books can – and hopefully then inspire them to go and read the history books!
What inspired you to get into playwrighting? What have been your highlights to date?
I did a drama degree a long time ago which was all about devising drama and theatre from scratch so to speak rather than acting set texts. So I think in a sense that 3 year process pointed me in the direction of writing. Highlights wise it’s difficult to say, in one sense this is the highlight because it’s the project I’m doing now, so it’s the one I’m absolutely passionate about now. There have been lots, seeing your name on TV, let’s be honest (and vacuous) for a moment, is always nice. Once Upon A Time In Wigan, getting such a reaction and going on to be toured far and wide for years and since revived was good, but then I think of other projects like Spit Nolan with Interplay a couple of years ago, seeing it performed in a special school and the kids reaction to it that genuinely had me close to tears.
Please could you share with my readers and followers why readers are encouraged to see the production?
Well, because it is a story that is very important, a piece of our history that is little known, a very moving story that is as relevant now as ever. As I write this I can hear the actors and the musical directors in the room next door working on some brand new arrangements and scorings for hymns from the Socialist hymns book. These are lyrically beautiful and, which again, are virtually unknown but contain some wonderful lines and sentiments that are more relevant now than ever. The play is both funny and sad, the story is fascinating and I think it’s well worth seeing.
There are a number of themes and issues raised from England, Arise! which are relevant today. Please could you share your thoughts on that?
The core of the play is an anti war protest movement – I don’t think we could be much more current than that. The anti war movement of the time also drew and intersected very much with the Women’s Suffrage Movement, as well as the Irish question, both of which are as on the agenda and live as political issues now, though thankfully not in the same form as in 1914. We owe a debt of thanks to Jill Liddington for her book, Rebel Girls, which allowed us to see the world through the eyes of Lavena Saltonstall and Lilian Lenton, an amazing woman – it was her ambition to burn 2 buildings a week till women got the vote. As we’ve worked on the play we’ve come to the view that the Women’s Movement had a huge influence on the Men’s Anti War Stance, that the privations, imprisonments and suffering the women went through kind of set a benchmark for the men when conscription came along, an issue they felt just as passionately about as women did the vote. It’s a play about people making a definite anti war protest stance in a time where capitalism and the failure of the markets bring the world into violent conflict over the battle for power, control and markets. I don’t think that’s too far away from where we are today.
How much are you looking forward to bring England, Arise! On stage?
Very much so, we have a fantastic group working on it, we began with a week’s R&D at Lawrence Batley Theatre in December when the script was at a very early stage, and the same group of actors and musicians are with us so it’s the culmination of a process that began a long time ago, in fact a good two and half years ago that Jude and I first met Cyril and began researching and thinking about how to do it. I just hope that we do the story and all involved full justice!
How are the rehearsals going?
So far so good, it’s early days, this is week one as I write but it’s begun really well, we’ve been doing a lot of music and singing in the first week and Jamie and Lee, the musical directors, have written and arranged some beautiful scores for the Socialist hymns. Arthur Gardiner is playing the guitar on one or two of them and straight away that gives him a real contemporary feel, links him to protest singers down the years. It’s all brilliant when you see things like that start to emerge in rehearsals.
May I take an opportunity to say a big thanks to Mick who has given us an insight to this exciting production. Please check out further information about England, Arise! including its National Tour here.